Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 01/27/23

How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust by [Dan McMillan]Dan McMillan


Never again? Today we remember those that suffered during the Holocaust, but also pledge to continue fighting for justice for present-day victims of genocide, including Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of East Turkistan – Prime Minister Salih Hudayar of the East Turkistan Government in Exile talking about Holocaust Remembrance Day which is being commemorated today. The quote comes amid rising anti-Semitism around the world as well as concerns about potential ethnic cleansing of other groups (i.e. the Uyghurs and, as recently discussed here,  the Armenians). All in all, it’s enough to make one doubt that the phrase “Never again” is holding up against some disturbing current trends. Historian Dan McMillan, the author of How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust (Basic Books, 2014), has some cautiously optimistic thoughts on the issue.

JWK: So, let’s start out with the basic question addressed in your book. How could the Holocaust have happened?

Dan McMillan: There are a lot of causes – and this, in a way, is good news. It’s something I want to emphasize up front – which is to say that for this happen in our most advanced society it was not enough for one thing to go wrong, or two or three. It needed about a dozen factors and every one of them was indispensable. It really is a kind of perfect storm of very many factors that (are) almost impossible (to replicate). I think that’s good news because a lot of people look at the Holocaust and they see it as cause for pessimism about human nature or about the future of our civilization. People say “You know, we’ve made all this technological progress but, look, morally we’re still in the Stone Age. Look at what we did.”

(What) I hope I accomplish in my book is to show (that) this is actually a very complex story. I’ve done my best to make it simple and to give a digestible overview. I think that’s really the chief goal of the book but, at the same time, it’s important to recognize that in every human society – and, especially, in democracies – there is a long string of very sturdy barriers that stand between us…and the perpetration of a genocide. I personally do not think that it would be possible for our country – or any other First World country – to perpetrate a genocide in the future. I think we’ve made just too much progress in too many ways.

Now, that being said, I’ve basically been telling you that the causation is really complex, that there are all these factors – more than we could really cover in, say, half an hour – but let me cut to what I think is most important. This is really the single most important thing I want people to understand about why the Holocaust happened. The Holocaust happened because the people who did this saw no reason not to. They saw no reason not to because the ruling class of about maybe 200-thousand men and a few thousand women who were perpetrators directly involved in this in Germany and Austria really had decided and stated quite explicitly that an individual human life has no intrinsic value whatsoever. I mean in every war, in every massacre, the killers dehumanize their victims and human life gets cheated but in the Holocaust…the dehumanization of the victims was complete and human life lost all value.

If we could get fifteen or twenty perpetrators at that level of the machinery of death – whether it’s members of SS shooting squads or bureaucrats in Berlin who did nothing but write orders – and we’d ask them, I think, with considerable anguish “Why in Heaven’s name are you doing something so cruel?!”…I think dollars to donuts we would get from probably all of them the same answer: a shrug of the shoulders and their own question to us. “Why not? They’re just people.”

Although their denial of the value of human life was especially extreme when applied to their Jewish victims which they defiled as not just worthless but less than worthless – as pernicious, as a kind of vermin in human form that they wanted to eradicate completely – the fact is they also took the same attitude to many other categories of human beings. I mean there were probably at least six or seven million gentile murder victims (such as) 3.3. million Soviet POWs who died in German captivity including at least two million deliberately and systematically starved to death, nearly two-million gentile citizens of Poland in addition to the three-million Polish Jews dead of various causes, hundreds of thousands of German mental patients and people suffering from heredity diseases that they murdered just as a matter of economic efficiency because these people were a drag on the budget and, for that matter, they spent the lives of own troops like water. The German military dead in World War II – which included also Austria and the ethnic German population of what had been Czechoslovakia – was about 80-million people. The German military dead was 5.3 million. By comparison, we were a country of about 140-million people. We lost a little over 400,000. Those losses are horrifying enough. They’re staggering (but compare that to) 5.3 million out of 80-million people. The leaders of Germany and the head of military…didn’t care at all. I mean combat losses, to the extent that they reduced combat effectiveness and weakened the forces, that was important to them. At one point, some of Hitler‘s generals went to him. They were alarmed that at the shockingly high death rate among junior officers on the Eastern Front. Hitler said “Well, that’s what the young men are there for.”

I guess what I want to emphasize is that the most important cause of the Holocaust really is the complete negation of the value of human life. This is something that they acted (upon). They carried it out. It’s something that they stated – and they stated it with pride because they saw it as a sign of their emotional toughness. People in the SS, in particular, which was the organization that carried out most of the killings, they were elite. Part of what made them elite is that only they were strong enough to do what had to be done for the overriding goal of ensuring the long-term survival of, basically, the German race as they saw it.

So, that’s the main point. I think that it’s also the reason why the Holocaust frightens people in ways that no other historical event does. Because the Holocaust frightens people, I think is also why Holocaust denial gets traction around the world, whereas, you know, there are no French Revolution denialists, there are no American Civil War denialists but there are tens of millions of Holocaust denialists.

JWK: It kind of surprises me that you would doubt that it could happen again. Didn’t it kind of happen again with Stalin in the Soviet Union and with Mao in China? Even today in Ukraine, Putin doesn’t seem to care about the value of human of life.

DM: Most of the deaths in the Soviet Union and in Mao’s China were from starvation due to economic mismanagement because capitalism works and communism doesn’t. Outright murders, in the Soviet Union during the Great Purges they shot about three-quarters of a million of their people because they considered their political loyalty to the regime suspect. What Putin has done in Ukraine obviously shows a real disregard (and) lack of respect for human life but not to the same degree. I would not see it as absolute. I mean I don’t want to sound like I’m defending Putin or humanizing him because he’s a monster but, in the case of the Holocaust, I mean the Soviet POWs that they starved to death, they did that almost just as a matter of convenience, whereas, Stalin ordered all those people shot because he really seriously feared that they were a threat to him. He had a motive for doing it. He thought it was necessary. I’m not saying that justifies his conduct any more than Putin is justified in invading Ukraine but, in the case of the German government and all these German elites – most of whom weren’t even Nazis – it was just convenient to Germany to murder people. That was reason enough because, again, why not? They’re just people. That to me is the most important thing that I want everyone to understand about the Holocaust. To the extent that you want to call the Holocaust unique, to me that’s the element of uniqueness. That’s what makes it frightening.

JWK: Again, even today we have the Uyghur situation in China. I was just interviewing someone recently about concerns regarding Azerbaijan and concerns over looming ethnic cleansing against the Armenians. What distinguishes these things from the Holocaust? Isn’t ethnic cleansing pretty much the same thing now as it was then?

DM: The boundary between ethnic cleansing and full-blown genocide is kind of a fluid one. Ethnic cleansing is a massive assault on human rights and human dignity. Look, there’s been no shortage of horrors (and) of ethnic killings since then. In the years to come, in what we think of as Third World countries, at times the prospects strike me as kind of grim because you have parts of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Greater Middle East, areas that are already badly overpopulated, where the population has outrun the caring capacity of the land – where there’s already not enough clean drinking water and food. Then you see the impacts of increasingly extreme weather on the food supply (and) on the water supply and also the fact that the governments in all these countries are horrendously corrupt and ineffective. I think that the potential for famine and for wars fought over resources and for genocide coming out of those wars…in the decades in front of us is horrifying. We could see killing on a scale the eclipses even the Second World War. So, no, I’m not trying to deny the horror of any of that, John.

JWK: I know. So, why do you think genocide less likely in what we may call the First World? Do you think the media serves as a protection?

DM: I think maybe a good way to make that point is to talk about three factors that kind of led the ruling class of Germany to sort of take this stand that individual human life is without value. I think there are three factors that were decisive.

One is just the cheapening of human life in the First World War where you had the most outright killings (in history). In previous wars you had high death tolls but often most of the deaths were from disease. For example, that was true in our Civil War. Here you had ten-million combat deaths, including two million in the German army. If you scale that as a fraction of their population up to our country today it would be as is if we just finished fighting a war where we lost ten-million killed in action. So, that just got people used to the idea that killing millions of people (as) a normal part of political life…Then (came) the violent context of the Second World War, the killing on an even greater scale on the battlefield. So, that’s one thing that cheapened human life. It’s hard to imagine that happening again…Our country today, would we really be willing to accept the kind of casualties we took in World War II? We lost 400,000 in World War II and the country had a much smaller population. You scale that up to today, would we be willing to to fight a war where a million of our young men and women lost their lives in combat? I mean if our country were directly invaded – which is kind of a geographic impossibility – yes, of course, we’d fight but would we send troops overseas for any reason and accept those kinds of deaths? I don’t think we would. Even Xi Jinping and Putin I think would hesitate to expect their peoples to accept (that). I think maybe we just value human life more highly. Maybe it’s the progress of the idea of human rights around the world. As much as it gets violated, human life has become more valuable in the eyes of all of us in this world – so killing on that scale I just don’t think is possible again.

The second factor that made possible the radical devaluation of life was (that) racism was a very different thing back then. We still have racial prejudice today, as well as other kinds of prejudice in our society, but back then it was not just a prejudice. The superiority of some races over others was seen as scientific fact. It was really what you’d call Social Darwinist Racism. It was, essentially, a deduction from a simplistic understanding of Darwin‘s Theory of Evolution. It was accepted as scientific fact by the educated elites of all Western societies that – not just white people versus black – but every ethnic group, whether it’s Irish versus English versus Polish or Greek or Jewish and so on, is it’s own race that had its distinctive genetic makeup and that each race had evolved a different distance from the apes and in different ways and each race was sort of determined by its genetic makeup to behave in certain ways. There was a hierarchy of value among races which then opened the door to the claim that some races might just be downright destructive or pernicious…This was something that built over many years in German society and politics, that the Jews are a destructive race and had to be exterminated. Today, even though we still have prejudice, all of us understand that there is only one race, that there is a human race and that we’re all part of it. Even the most vicious white supremacist in our country would not say, I think, that black people are a different species…So, that’s a sea change that also, I think, again, makes it impossible to repeat what happened in Germany.

The third (factor) is that Nazi Germany was a kind of political system that has never been seen before or since. It’s the only political system in history where the legitimacy of the government derived almost entirely from the people’s belief in the sort of almost magical powers of a leader, of Adolf Hitler. That came about because everything had failed in Germany. Democracy came late to Germany. They weren’t used to it. (During) their first decade of it in the 1920s they had all these bad experiences, so many crises. Then the Great Depression comes and their government fails the test. They’re in a state of just economic despair with 30% unemployment. They don’t even know if there exists an economic system that will work for them. Their only hope is a miracle worker, a savior.

At that juncture, Hitler gains power and then, mostly due to dumb luck on his part rather than actual skill, he has a string of astonishing successes for the next eight years. The two most important: (First) Germany was the only major economy to escape the Great Depression in the 1930s. The reason for this was that Hitler was determined to take Germany into another major war. So, against the advice of his economic advisers, he engaged in deficit spending and pumped all this money into armaments. The German people had no idea that they were headed for another war but they did know that they had their jobs back. Already by 1937 they had a labor shortage in Germany. We were still in double-digit inflation. So was everyone else pretty much.

The other sort of miraculous success he had was in the spring of 1940 (when), due to a lot of luck due and some extreme cleverness by a couple of very innovative tank generals, Germany ended up defeating the French and British forces in only six weeks in May and June of 1940. Every German would have compared that to their experience in the First World War when they’d fought the same enemies – not for six weeks but for four years – (and) they lost two-million instead of just 30,000 that they lost in 1940 and they lost the war.

Where I’m going with this is that Hitler effectively became the source of all legal authority. His will was the source of all law. He, therefore, was above the law, outside the law. Nothing that Hitler did was subject to moral or legal objections or criticism. Hitler operated in a norm-free space and everyone who followed his orders did as well. That’s kind of the third element: the worship of Adolf Hitler (and) the belief in his superhuman or even supernatural powers. He said that he was an instrument of divine providence and many Germans believed this. That was very destructive of traditional moral norms. I think that was the third factor. I know that’s a big idea to get your mind around…It’s hard to imagine that ever happening again. That’s a fluke. I mean we’ve had powerful tyrants throughout history. Certainly, Stalin in Russia, Mao in China could kill anyone they wanted and could do whatever they wanted. They were unopposed and yet, nonetheless, their power and their place in the political systems of their countries was not in the same league, not as exalted as that of Adolf Hitler in Germany. That is something that has, again, happened only once in history. It’s hard to see it happening again.

JWK: I don’t know if I agree with you. For one thing, didn’t Stalin actually kill more people than Hitler? Even today you constantly hear “Follow the science!” exclaimed in a kind of worshipful and unquestioning way. Isn’t that sort of what led to eugenics gaining so much ground in Nazi Germany? I agree with you that most people are totally down with the idea that we all belong to one human race but I don’t see that idea being played up too much in the media. In fact, I see the reverse. They instead seem to be driving home points of separatism with regard to race and other issues. I don’t see our current society as immune to this at all.

DM: I’m really glad you raise those questions. They’re all very to the point. Stalin, people often say that he killed more people Hitler. No. You could say that more people died in the Soviet Union. There were several famines, not just the Ukrainian famine in the thirties, due to mismanagement of the economy (and) mismanagement of agriculture because they were adhering to these crackpot communist theories but, as far as outright murders, we’re talking about three quarters of a million shot…About 13-million people went to labor camps.

JWK: Even all that aside, I’m talking about today. I hope you’re right. I hope it could never happens again but I don’t feel like we are immune to such a thing because I think you do kinda see some of the same things going on now that were going on then. Of course, you probably wouldn’t agree with this – and a lot of people probably wouldn’t agree with this – but some of us would argue that abortion is a kind of Holocaust. As I understand the statistics, about four times as many black babies are being aborted as white babies. Even that issue aside, I just feel like we have a lot of forces at work in our country right now that are pushing race separation and there is also an unquestioning “Follow the science!” mantra. I mean science is great and there are some great scientists but, let’s face it, scientists can also be pretty evil sometimes. As shown in Germany, if you put all your trust in crazy scientists it can lead to problems. I just see the kind of forces that were at play in Nazi Germany as still at work today. No?

DM: Let me speak to that. First, as far as science, maybe it is true that people have a strong faith in science today but my point was not so much about faith in science. It was just that at that time certain beliefs about racial difference were part of the science that everyone thought was irrefutable science. Those beliefs are different from our science of genetics today because scientists today will tell us there is only one race, the human race. Back then there were all these different races and they varied in value.

JWK: Yeah, but do you feel that that’s a message that people are getting through the media – that there’s only one race, the human race?

DM: Now, you’re talking about the media. I think it’s true that in recent years the politics of race have become toxic in our country. I think both parties do it. Both political parties contribute to this toxicity although in different ways. That kind of leads us back – and I don’t want to hijack the discussion – to my political project. I think a lot of that is driven by money in politics. Both major parties have been conquered by moneyed interests because, basically, candidates need so much money for their campaigns. So, effectively, our government and both parties are for sale to campaign donors. One result of that is that both parties kind of buy off their middle class and working class constituents – their voters – and keep them in line by playing a game of divide and conquer. Part of the divide and conquer mechanism is race, the politics of race.

Let me sort of give (an example) to make it more concrete – and this is very drastically oversimplified. For decades now, you will hear from Republican politicians and their media allies saying something roughly like “Your problem is not the Wall Street firms that pay for all my campaigns and give money to my party and who crashed the economy in 2008 so that you lost your home in a foreclosure. Your problem is black people who commit crimes and sponge off the government and suck up your tax dollars. Your problem is immigrants who want to steal your job. Your problem is godless supporters of abortion-on-demand who do not respect your religious faith.

On the Democratic side, what you hear is something very similar just with slightly different language: “Your problem is not the Wall Street firms that pay for all my election campaigns…Your problem is the racist gun-toting redneck. You know, white people who live in rural areas will hate you because of the color of your skin and won’t give you a chance. (They) don’t care if your child dies in a school shooting. (They) are religious fanatics who want to ram their Christian beliefs down your throat.”

I’m not saying that gun ownership and gun control isn’t important. I’m not saying immigration isn’t important as an issue. I’m certainly not saying that abortion isn’t important because it’s a very important issue and the stakes are very high no matter where you are on it. But both parties milk these issues for anger and they stereotype supporters of either side for anger. It’s divide and conquer. Divide and conquer is kinda how money has stayed on top throughout our history because we’re such a diverse society.

JWK: I don’t really disagree with that but I have a hard time connecting it to the idea that the Holocaust is, if not impossible, unlikely to happen again in some form. Whether it’s money that’s driving it or what, I just don’t think that we’re in any way immune from such a thing happening again.

DM: You may be right, John. Ultimately, I don’t have a crystal ball. I could be wrong. I may be more optimistic than is warranted. On the other hand, it’s so important we study the Holocaust in particular. For me, it’s important because it reminds us that the value we place on human life is not something that we can take for granted. It’s something that we cannot value highly enough and that we should affirm in every way that we can. On the other hand though, I don’t like it when people take it as a sign to make the argument that human civilization has not made moral progress because I do feel, as an historian looking at the sweep of history, the Holocaust is not the only thing that we’ve done in the last three centuries.

In so many ways we’ve made tremendous moral progress. I mean the Founding Fathers of our republic are great men by the standards of any era. Nonetheless, a lot of them owned other human beings as slaves and thought that was morally okay. We may still have racial prejudice today but, heavens, this is a gigantic difference! Even, for that matter, in my lifetime since 1960. You know, sixty years ago white-owned businesses in this country had one of two policies toward hiring black people – either “We don’t hire black people” or “We do hire black people but only as janitors or in other menial roles.” Do black people now have a level playing field in the US? I have my doubts on that but compared to sixty years ago the progress is gigantic.

It’s the same for career opportunities for women. Sixty years ago you if wanted to have a career outside the home if you’re a woman you had two options: nursing and school teaching. If a young woman out of high school in 1960 went around telling people that she hopes one day to be president of the United States she probably would have been locked up in a mental hospital.

So, (that’s) all by way of saying that I really feel that in our own country that, although there’s a lot of anger in our politics, I feel like it’s driven, again, by the perverted incentives of a money-driven political system. I believe that below the political level that we Americans are really a lot more fair and kind to each other than we were sixty years ago – or even thirty. So, it’s essential that we study the Holocaust and understand it but I don’t want people to then just get pessimistic about the human future and about our civilization because I believe in human beings. I believe in human goodness.

JWK: I agree with that. I mean I guess, by the same token, you could say that slavery is unlikely to happen again in so-called First World countries.

DM: Slavery?! God, I can’t imagine that!

JWK: So, I like what you’re saying in that we have made a lot of progress and I agree with that. Maybe the problem is we don’t appreciate the progress we’ve made because ancient angers are still being stirred up. People are still fighting over 400-year-old issues. I agree with you. I think a lot of it has to do with money in politics and people trying to leverage division for power. Even though we’ve made all this progress, a lot of people in powerful places don’t seem to want us to enjoy the fruits of that progress.

DM: Well, you know, I think you and I are on the same page here in general, John. That is to say that I guess another way that I’d put it is that racial inequality and injustice I think still is a fact of American life. Given the history of slavery, it’s unrealistic to expect it not to be still, at least, somewhat a factor but when I see politicians of both parties talking about race I don’t see the politicians of either party talking about it constructively. I don’t see politicians of either party offering solutions, offering a path to progress. I don’t see a plan from anyone about how do we make this better and how do we bring Americans together. What I see is both parties milking racial prejudice for anger.

JWK: So, bottom line, what is the lesson we should take from the Holocaust?

DM: I guess the way that I would sum up the lesson is, you know, let me just say a little bit about why I think it’s so scary. This is something that I hope will be of interest to your audience which, I think, is people of faith. We live in some ways in a secular age. There are a lot of people – like myself, for example – who were not raised in a religious faith. One of the most valuable things that our religious traditions do for us is they give us meaning in our lives. If you don’t have a religious faith to draw on as a source of meaning for your existence you can be in a very frightening place. I think that that is the nerve that the Holocaust touches. The reason the Holocaust scares us so much is that it is a direct assault on the meaning of our lives. If your outlook is secular, your own faith in the meaning of your existence is a lot more fragile than it is if you have the blessing of faith – and I think it is a blessing.

Another way that I’d like to put it is that, if you are devout in the Judeo-Christian tradition, you are beautiful because you are made in the image of your Creator and your life has much meaning because God put you here on this Earth for a noble purpose. If you’re someone like me who was not raised religious, you’re not made in the image of your Creator. You’re a glorified monkey clinging to an asteroid and your existence is an accident and you face the possibility that your existence is without meaning alone. I can tell you it’s not easy. I’ve been wrestling with that question my whole life, John. In a way that’s why I was compelled to study the Holocaust because I couldn’t articulate it but I think on some level I intuited that “Wow! This is a direct attack on the meaning of my life!” and that’s why I had to understand it.

Anyway, circling back to try and finish and answer your question properly…I guess the lesson (of the Holocaust) to me is that if you teach human beings the wrong ideas, if you put them under the wrong kind of government – i.e. dictatorship – and if you put them in the wrong circumstances – that is a major war because a major war is almost always a precondition of genocide – there’s no limit to how low we can sink morally. We can sink to an absolute nihilism and an absolute denial of the value of the life of every human being.

On the other hand, especially since the Second World War we have been – in the First World, at least – systematically teaching our people, teaching ourselves the right ideas, including the idea of human rights, of human dignity (and) that racism is bad. We’ve been building the right kind of governments – democracies – and we’ve avoided the most dangerous circumstances – that is major war between any of the First World countries of the world. In that way, we have succeeded in building societies that are, in my view, morally superior to every human society that came before. That is progress.

So, the Holocaust is to me the ultimate warning but, on the other hand, all the things that we’ve done since then to make another Holocaust impossible are also milestones in the progress of human civilization that I also believe will continue – moral progress, not just material.

JWK: I like your optimism. I hope it turns out to be the way things play out – that we do overcome our past and embrace the progress that has been made. Anything else you’d like to say as we wrap up?

DM: I think that the one last thought that I’d like to leave people with (is that) Holocaust education has often been taken as an opportunity to teach young people that anti-Semitism and other sort of prejudices are bad and wrong because this is what they can lead to. I think that is valuable but I think there are a couple more immediate reasons that I guess I would like to see us use when we try to teach young people to set aside these kinds of prejudices. One is simply that they are hurtful to people. The other is that if you cling to any prejudice of this kind – whether it’s race or religion of any kind – you cheat yourself. You rob yourself of so many good experiences you might have in life – of friendships, relationships and opportunities to learn interesting things from people whose experiences differ from yours.

So, you know, getting away from racism, the payoff to that is not just the more abstract notion that we don’t want another genocide. There’s also a very immediate payoff and benefit to anyone who can set aside prejudices. I think I’d like to see that incorporated more into the way that we try to teach our young people that racism is bad and so on.

Update: The last time I spoke with Dan McMillan it was about his aforementioned Democracy Dollars project. As we connected this time, he shared this update with me.

JWK: So, what’s happening with your Democracy Dollars project?

DM: Well, it turns out that there are a lot of other people around the country who are working on establishing Democracy Dollars systems at the state of local level. There was a ballot initiative to establish such a system municipal elections in Oakland, California that won by a two-to-one majority. There are efforts underway, I believe, in other cities in the San Francisco area. There’s also an effort in Los Angeles. A member of the State House of Representatives in New Hampshire, Russ Muirhead, a very respected political science prophet at Dartmouth and respected politician, introduced a law to establish a Democracy Dollars system for the funding of state elections in New Hampshire. I’m (still) working on it at the federal level. So, the idea is definitely gathering steam.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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